NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: June 16

Finally, the U.S. mega-bases in Iraq make the news

It’s just a $5,812,353 contract — chump change for the Pentagon — and not even one of those notorious “no-bid” contracts either. Ninety-eight bids were solicited by the Army Corps of Engineers and 12 were received before the contract was awarded this May 28th to Wintara, Inc. of Fort Washington, Maryland, for “replacement facilities for Forward Operating Base Speicher, Iraq.” According to a Department of Defense press release, the work on those “facilities” to be replaced at the base near Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, is expected to be completed by January 31, 2009, a mere 11 days after a new president enters the Oval Office. It is but one modest reminder that, when the next administration hits Washington, American bases in Iraq, large and small, will still be undergoing the sort of repair and upgrading that has been ongoing for years.

In fact, in the last five-plus years, untold billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the construction and upgrading of those bases. When asked back in the fall of 2003, only months after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer then “tasked with facilities development” in Iraq, proudly indicated that “several billion dollars” had already been invested in those fast-rising bases. Even then, he was suitably amazed, commenting that “the numbers are staggering.” Imagine what he might have said, barely two and a half years later, when the U.S. reportedly had 106 bases, mega to micro, all across the country.

Soldiers blame lack of training, support for Bagram abuse

The guards at the U.S. detention center at Bagram Air Base didn’t know whether Habibullah had anything to do with terrorist attacks on America, but they knew that he was defiant.

On a cold December day in 2002, Spc. Brian Cammack tried to feed the Afghan clergyman in his late 20s a piece of bread by cramming it into his mouth. Habibullah’s hands were chained above his head, but he pushed the bread out of his mouth with his tongue and spit at Cammack.

Cammack lost his temper and kneed the chained prisoner in the leg, cursed at him, put a cloth sack back over his head and stormed out of his cell.

Later, when Cammack heard Habibullah “rustling around” in his chains, he thought nothing of it. When he finally went back in to check on the prisoner, Cammack said: “I took the sack off his head and his eyes looked strange.”

Soon after, Habibullah died of a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot dislodged by the beatings he’d received. He was one of two Afghan detainees known to have died of beatings at Bagram; the other was a man named Dilawar.

McCain takes Gitmo ruling personally

John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, told a crowd of supporters in New Jersey Friday that the Supreme Court’s latest Guantanamo Bay ruling is “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

Why would the normally stoic senator become so hyperbolic about a ruling that, at its essence, strengthens the vitality of the “Great Writ” of habeas corpus – a bedrock constitutional right?

There are several reasons. As a political matter, McCain clearly understands that in his quest to enchant the hard-right wing of the Grand Old Party, he must rail upon the Supreme Court whenever it happens to disagree with the Bush Administration on legal aspects of the war on terrorism.

This is why, just a few weeks ago, McCain delivered a speech that hammered the federal judiciary, sweeping away any lingering notion that he intends to govern as a moderate on legal policy and priorities.

Could Iraq surge success, paradoxically, benefit Obama?

The policy in Iraq that McCain now takes credit for is far more nuanced than the rhetoric he employs. He has constantly praised the strategy and its architects, but what seems to animate his views on Iraq is a refusal to compromise. When the occupation turned sour in 2003 he advocated sending more troops; when others in Congress wanted to beat a retreat and turn to diplomacy he supported the troop surge; he’s spoken of a peaceful Iraq that the United States might have to garrison for 100 years.

This creates two problems for McCain. The first is substantive: Aggressive posturing and a refusal to compromise were the hallmarks of America’s utter failure early in the war. The successes of the surge — they are real, even if they may not be permanent — have not just involved sending more troops into Iraqi neighborhoods. There’s been a lot of nose-holding as well, as American diplomats, soldiers and Marines cut deals with ex-insurgents, seek accommodation with local Shiite militants, and negotiate off-and-on with Iran and its proxies in Iraq. Whether McCain is temperamentally suited to following through on that sort of strategy is an open question.

The second problem is purely political. Americans don’t want to lose in Iraq, but they also don’t want to stay forever. When McCain stuck his foot in his mouth speculating about a 100-year presence in Iraq, the problem wasn’t that he was envisioning endless war — he wasn’t. The problem is that he was imagining that the United States might have to stay in Iraq indefinitely for the sake of American national security. There aren’t many Americans left who are inspired by the prospect of a long nation-building mission in Iraq, or by the prospect of American troops sticking around forever in the hope that their presence can help avert another round of catastrophic violence.

Mismarriage of convenience

Although Iran and Israel will not be signing any mutual defense pacts anytime soon, the two countries aren’t destined to be implacable foes. If anything, Israel could be a prime beneficiary of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.

It might sound inconceivable that Iran, whose leaders since 1979 have used the most venomous rhetoric against the “little Satan,” would ever moderate its stance toward Israel. Yet a careful review of the past three decades shows that Iran’s hostile rhetoric is more a product of opportunism than fanaticism. Iran and Israel have even been willing to work together quietly at times, despite their conflicting ideologies.

The reason is simple: When forced to choose, Tehran invariably chooses its geostrategic interests over its ideological impulses. In no other area is the decisiveness of the strategic dimension of Iran’s foreign policy clearer than when it comes to Israel. When these two pillars of Iranian foreign policy have clashed, as they did in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s geostrategic concerns have consistently prevailed. Tehran quietly sought Israel’s aid, and the Jewish state made many efforts to place Iran and the United States back on speaking terms. Faced with an invading Iraqi army and finding its U.S.-built weaponry starved of spare parts by a U.S. embargo, Tehran was in desperate need of help from Israel. Israel, in turn, was more than eager to avoid an Iraqi victory and to restore the traditional Israeli-Iranian clandestine security cooperation established under the shah, the mullahs’ fierce anti-Israeli rhetoric notwithstanding.

No rushing talks on pact with U.S., Iraqis say

Discussions among Iraqi politicians on the country’s long-term security agreement with the United States were under way over the weekend, but it will take many weeks and more likely months before the agreement is completed, people close to the negotiations said.

American officials would like a deal by the end of July, before the Democratic and Republican national conventions. But for Iraqis, who have an election law to complete in the next month so they can prepare for an election of their own in the fall, that seems like a tight deadline.

“None of the articles have yet been agreed to,” said Fouad Massoun, a Kurd who is involved in the discussions. “The negotiations are in the primary stage.”

In Iraq’s south, a mission has dual aims

In an operation with military and political objectives, the Iraqi Army continued to assemble troops in and around the southern city of Amara on Sunday.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki offered an amnesty to militants in the city who were willing to surrender, and he also offered to buy back heavy weapons from militia fighters. Similar offers in the past few months have presaged military operations against Shiite or Sunni militias in Basra, the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

As in Basra and Sadr City, Amara is dominated by the movement of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Mr. Maliki’s government has appeared eager to crush at least Mr. Sadr’s militia, if not his movement.

Sadr’s party says it won’t stand in elections

Members of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s political bloc announced Sunday that the group would not compete as a party in coming local elections but would endorse candidates.

The decision appeared aimed at allowing the Sadr movement to play a role in the Iraqi elections despite a government threat to bar the bloc from fielding candidates if it did not first dissolve its militia.

The endorsements “will not be for Sadrists alone, but for individuals, chieftains, people with popularity and talents to serve and offer public services to the people,” said Sadr loyalist and parliament member Haidar Fakhrildeen. “We will support them, we will advise the people to vote for them.”

Karzai threatens to send soldiers Into Pakistan

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan threatened on Sunday to send soldiers into Pakistan to fight militant groups operating in the border areas to attack Afghanistan. His comments, made at a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, are likely to worsen tensions between the countries, just days after American forces in Afghanistan killed 11 Pakistani soldiers on the border while pursuing militants.

“If these people in Pakistan give themselves the right to come and fight in Afghanistan, as was continuing for the last 30 years, so Afghanistan has the right to cross the border and destroy terrorist nests, spying, extremism and killing, in order to defend itself, its schools, its peoples and its life,” Mr. Karzai said.

“When they cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same,” he said.

Pakistan protests to Afghan envoy

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan has been summoned to the foreign ministry to receive a formal protest over remarks by President Hamid Karzai.

Mr Karzai said on Sunday that Afghanistan had the right to send troops across the border to chase militants taking shelter in Pakistan.

The Afghan ambassador in Islamabad was given a “strong protest” over the comments, Pakistan says.

Rice humbly petitions Israel to please not build more settlements

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday pressed Israeli officials to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem but failed to win any concessions as she continued to push for a Middle East peace deal by the end of the year.

Rice was making her sixth visit to the region since peace talks resumed in Annapolis last November. Despite her efforts, there have been few public signs of progress and, in certain respects, conditions have deteriorated on the ground.

Rice on Sunday singled out Israeli plans to build thousands of new homes in disputed areas currently under Israeli control but claimed by the Palestinians. Referring to those plans, Rice said, “I do believe, and the United States believes, that the actions and the announcements that are taking place are indeed having a negative effect on the atmosphere for the negotiation — and that is not what we want.”

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